(photo credit: GPO/ AP)
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is expected to tell US President George W. Bush during their meeting on Tuesday that Israel is willing to renew talks with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas about a "political horizon."
Israel was prepared to talk seriously "about the political horizon for what will eventually become the basis for a permanent agreement between us and the Palestinians," Olmert said Sunday evening in a speech to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
Following the establishment of a PA national unity government in February, Israel stopped discussing "political horizon" issues with the Palestinians, roughly defined as what a two-state solution would be like.
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Olmert's willingness to discuss these issues with Abbas and the new PA government comes just a week before Bush is scheduled to deliver an address on the Middle East marking five years since he laid out his vision for a two-state solution. The speech is also likely to be a topic of discussion during the Bush-Olmert meeting, expected to be dominated by the new situation in the PA and how it could be harnessed to move the diplomatic process forward.
While Olmert has spoken a number of times about the opportunities to forge ahead with Abbas, he has said little about how Israel would respond to violence from Hamas-controlled Gaza, a taste of which Israel received Monday. This issue is also likely to be discussed between the two leaders.
Syria and Iran are also expected to be discussed. Olmert, according to officials in his office, told the UN's new special envoy to the Middle East, Michael Williams, that Israel was not interested in talks with Damascus under an international umbrella.
Williams, who was recently in Damascus but did not meet with Syrian President Bashar Assad, told Olmert the Syrians expressed interest in talks that would be under the Quartet's auspices.
Israel's position, according to officials in the Prime Minister's Office, is that any talks with Syria, formal or discreet, need to be bilateral. Attempts to place them under an international umbrella, the officials said, were transparent Syrian efforts to get the international community involved to lessen its own isolation.
Olmert poured cold water on a so-called "Syrian track" during his speech to the President's Conference.
"Some people are happy to hear some statements from Damascus about future relations with Israel," he said. "The hard reality is that every day, arms are still being smuggled from Syria to Hizbullah, and the headquarters of all terrorist organizations - which are perpetrating the atrocities in Gaza and other parts of the Middle East - are in Damascus."
Israel has not ruled out contacts with Syria, but has said that the Syrians must show they are serious about peace by stopping the arms flow to Hizbullah and kicking the terrorist organizations out of Damascus.
In preparation for his meeting with Bush, Olmert met Monday with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and National Security Council head Stephen Hadley. He also met with AIPAC leaders.
Before going to Washington, Olmert met Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani. Sources in Olmert's office said he had wanted to meet other candidates but they were not in town.
Following the Bush meeting and a joint press appearance, Olmert is scheduled to meet separately with Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, before flying back to Israel in Tuesday evening.